For the third time in its history, Apple has entered a period of mass Mac upheaval. The company is transitioning to its own silicon, discarding Intel processors that replaced PowerPC chips in the mid-2000s – which themselves took over from their 68k predecessors during the 1990s.
While this transition is incomplete, buyers face a conundrum. Should you go with the known quantity of hardware with long-running support and reliability, or place a bet on the future? Beyond that, which form factor is best – the svelte MacBook Air, the monster that is the MacBook Pro 16in, or a MacBook Pro 13in that sits somewhere in-between?
This buyer’s guide aims to untangle the mess Apple’s created. We delve into four different MacBook models – and upgrades you can add that’ll make your bank account shriek – so you can find out which is the right fit for you.
What’s the best MacBook in 2021?
It’s complicated. Sorry, but it is. Apple’s M1 barged in, upended everything we knew about the Mac, and left existing models looking old-hat.
Oddly, then, given that it’s the cheapest model in the line-up, our vote for the best MacBook and the best MacBook for most people goes to the MacBook Air (from £990). A case redesign would have been welcome, but this Mac is powerful, portable and good value for money.
View the MacBook Air for from £990 on Amazon
At the other end of the range, we find the MacBook Pro 16in (from £2,399), which is the best MacBook for pro editing. That said, if you’re knocking on the door of three grand and not desperate for a new high-end Mac, wait and see what Santa Cook has in his goody bag this year.
View the MacBook Pro 16in for from £2,399 on Apple
Apple MacBook Air (M1)
WIRED Recommends: Powerful, portable and affordable, Apple’s cheapest MacBook is now its best buy
Screen: 13.3in (2560×1600 at 227ppi) | Chip: M1 | RAM: 8GB/16GB | Storage: 256GB/512GB/1TB/2TB | Connectivity: 2× Thunderbolt/USB 4; headphones | Size and weight: 30.41×21.24×1.61–0.41cm; 1.29kg | Battery life: Up to 15 hours
If you’ve used a MacBook Air before, you’re in for a shock with this one. Not with the design, which while industry leading is starting to age. Open the lid and chunky bezels greet you, at odds with the still impressive (if today more ‘classic’ than cutting edge) wedge-shaped form factor that ensures this MacBook remains the most pleasant Apple laptop to type on.
No, the shock comes when you turn it on and discover the raw power inside.
With this being Apple’s entry-level MacBook, you might have trouble processing the previous sentence – but the hype surrounding the Apple-designed M1 chip is real. WIRED’s test MacBook Air M1 (from £999) had 8GB RAM yet with the M1 scythed through most tasks – often at a speed that made a nearby MacBook Pro 16in flagship sweat.
This was especially apparent in apps optimised for the M1, such as Pixelmator Pro, where the MacBook Air blazed with frightening speed through photo edits utilising machine learning. But it also impressed with tasks you wouldn’t normally associate with an entry-level MacBook: playing tracks loaded with virtual synths in Logic and Korg Gadget; video editing and encoding. All this on a machine that’s silent, given that it lacks a fan.
If you’re wondering about more basic fare – web browsing; text editing; media consumption – don’t be concerned. This Mac doesn’t suddenly keel over with simpler challenges and remains fast and responsive. So with all that in mind, why wouldn’t you buy a MacBook Air if you need a new Mac laptop?
Well, for sustained tasks, the lack of a fan puts it at a disadvantage compared to a MacBook Pro. The speakers are a bit weaker. And if you’re a Touch Bar fan, there isn’t one – you instead get a full row of old-school function keys. Most people won’t give two hoots about those things though. That leaves this MacBook Air as one that, finally, doesn’t feel like a compromise and also comes across like something approaching a bargain.
Pros: Surprisingly powerful; great battery life; silent; quality displayCons: Design needs a refresh; 720p webcam
Price: From £999 | Check price on Amazon | Apple | Argos
Apple MacBook Pro 13in (M1)
For when you want to motor up the M1 with a little more oomph
Screen: 13.3in (2560×1600 at 227ppi) | Chip: M1 | RAM: 8GB/16GB | Storage: 256GB/512GB/1TB/2TB | Connectivity: 2× Thunderbolt/USB 4; headphones | Size and weight: 30.41×21.24×1.56cm; 1.4kg | Battery life: Up to 17 hours
What makes a MacBook ‘Pro’? Is it a laptop for professionals rather than casual users, or is ’Pro’ just a label? The answer’s a bit of both with this M1-equipped MacBook Pro (from £1,299).
It matches or beats the M1 MacBook Air for features. Sadly, connectivity goes for the former – and the paucity of ports (two Thunderbolt 3/USB 4 and headphones) is irksome on a more expensive machine. Elsewhere, the screen’s a tad brighter and audio slightly meatier. There’s a Touch Bar, if you care about that. But the main differences over its sibling are longer battery life (to the tune of about two hours in our testing) and the Pro having a fan.
That last point is important, because it makes this machine more performant than the MacBook Air (above) for sustained, demanding tasks. In general use, this extra grunt is hard to spot, but run a load of benchmarks or time tasks and pore over a resulting spreadsheet of figures (WIRED reviewers know how to live) and the gap between the two machines becomes clearer.
FPS scores are higher. The time taken for resource-intensive tasks is lower. In our HandBrake video encoding tests, the MacBook Pro finished in 85–90 per cent of the time the MacBook Air took – although this encoding happened to the dulcet tones of a fan. (This was one of the few tasks where we got the fan to regularly spin up.)
What’s more striking is how this Mac compared to Intel MacBook Pro models. The M1 – with half the RAM – stomped all over its 13in Intel i5 predecessor. Only when we ran unoptimised Intel apps did the older MacBook Pro sometimes edge ahead, but even then only marginally. Frequently, the M1 beat the i9 MacBook Pro 16in too – which costs twice as much.
So, this is a pretty great MacBook Pro. It’s also something to realise that this is the puniest M1 MacBook Pro Apple will ever release, yet already it often outperforms much pricier Intel models. That said, unless you need that sustained performance or have a hankering for a Touch Bar, save yourself 300 quid and get a MacBook Air.
Pros: Fast and responsive; great battery life; fan barely fires up; top-notch displayCons: Design feels old; 720p webcam; lack of ports
Price: From £1,299 | Check price on Amazon | Apple | Argos
Apple MacBook Pro 13in (Intel)
The MacBook that got left behind – but good for running Windows
Screen: 13.3in (2560×1600 at 227ppi) | Chip: 10th-gen Intel Core i5 or i7 | RAM: 16GB/32GB | Storage: 512GB/1TB/2TB/4TB | Connectivity: 4× Thunderbolt/USB 4; headphones | Size and weight: 30.41×21.24×1.56cm; 1.4kg | Battery life: Up to 10 hours
Rarely has a MacBook Pro fallen from grace so quickly as this Intel MacBook Pro 13in (from £1,799). It rocked up in May 2020 with a shiny new Magic Keyboard and improved Intel processors. But then the M1 arrived. From a performance perspective, the older MacBook Pro now comes across like an embarrassment.
Actually, that’s not entirely fair. This remains a zippy machine. For everything from Photoshop work to helping you become the next Stanley Kubrick in Final Cut Pro, this Mac is capable. But pit it against its M1 successor and you recall shoot-outs Apple used to do with PowerPC Macs and Intel PCs (before PowerPC died on the vine) – the M1 frequently blazes ahead.
Albeit not with Photoshop itself, which isn’t native yet, meaning you don’t with that product see performance gains on Apple’s new silicon. And before that gives the Intel Mac a moment of smugness, we should note its fans fired alarmingly often when the machine was under stress. Still, that at least helped us tell the two otherwise identical MacBook Pro 13in machines apart.
So why buy this Mac? Notably, you might have no choice. If you need a new MacBook Pro 13in and rely on legacy software that doesn’t play well with the M1 – or want to run Windows apps at a good speed alongside Mac apps – it’s an option, albeit an expensive one. And the unit itself is still solid when you consider the lovely display, quality speakers (louder than the ones on the M1 model), extra ports, and RAM and storage options that max out at 32GB and 4TB respectively. Assuming your bank account can take the strain.
Mostly, though, this Mac feels redundant. By all means buy one if you need a smallish Mac laptop for running Windows or legacy software. Otherwise, don’t bother.
Pros: Great display; loud speakers; nice keyboard; runs WindowsCons: Lags behind the M1; design feels old; 720p webcam; battery won’t last the day with demanding work; fan spins up a lot
Price: From £1,799 | Check price on Amazon | Apple | Argos
Apple MacBook Pro 16in (Intel)
A flagship powerhouse, designed for demanding creative types
Screen: 16in (3072×1920 at 226ppi) | Chip: 9th-gen Intel Core i7 or i9 | RAM: 16GB/32GB/64GB | Storage: 512GB/1TB/2TB/4TB/8TB | Connectivity: 4× Thunderbolt/USB 4; headphones | Size and weight: 35.79×24.59×1.62cm; 2.0kg | Battery life: Up to 11 hours
Play your favourite tunes on the MacBook Pro 16in (from £2,399) and your ears are in for a treat. Close your eyes and you’ll swear the sounds aren’t coming from a laptop. The output might not beat studio monitors, but the soundstage and clarity is night and day compared to other MacBooks – and it’s not like their speakers are bad.
It might seem odd to start this review talking about speakers, but there’s a point – and it’s that the MacBook Pro 16in shouldn’t be thought of as ‘just’ a laptop. Instead, it’s more a mobile high-end edit suite, whether you’re into audio, video, images or 3D. Along with the speakers (six‑speaker system with force‑cancelling woofers!), you get a whopping 16in display, the refresh rate of which can be adjusted to match the frame rate of video you’re editing or viewing. During purchase, you can choose from several AMD graphics card options, and this Mac can drive two Apple Pro Display XDR monitors.
The downside is this Mac is a monster. It’s bulky and heavy. The trackpad is comically large, and although Apple’s palm rejection is good, unintended inputs do happen. It’s expensive, starting at £2,399 – and that price rapidly increases when you add upgrades.
Given the level of investment, the elephant in the room is again the M1. Our Core i9 MacBook Pro 16in performed well in 3D and other creative tasks and notably had the sheer grunt to lead the pack in video encoding. But the entry-level MacBook Air disconcertingly bested it in some photo editing tests, for smooth playback of a tricky Korg Gadget project, and even when zipping huge files.
Apple might not be thrilled by such direct comparisons, but the flip side is it showcases how the company’s at the start of an impressive transition. If the puniest MacBook Air can sometimes embarrass the flagship MacBook Pro, what will the new flagship be capable of? The question for you as a potential MacBook Pro 16in buyer is can you afford to wait? If so, do. If not, this Mac will serve you well for years – but you’ll pay for the privilege and might regret not having Apple silicon inside.
Pros: Large, gorgeous display; powerful; great speakers for a laptop; can run several external displaysCons: Big and heavy; not upgradable; 720p webcam; fan easy to trigger; MacBook Air beats it in some tasks
Price: From £2,399 | Check price on Amazon | Apple | Argos
MacBooks are sealed units. Only the brave (read: foolhardy) attempt to later upgrade their components. This makes it vitally important to consider what’s in your Mac at the point of purchase. Here we’ve listed the key things to consider before parting with your cash.
M1 vs Intel
Pound for pound, Apple’s M1 chips embarrass Intel’s to the point Intel Macs look like poor value. So why go Intel? Reasons.
It’s your sole option to run Windows via Boot Camp or Parallels Desktop. Or you might rely on critical apps that run poorly or not at all on the M1/under Rosetta 2. (Sanity check compatibility at Is Apple silicon ready? – and games at Apple Silicon Games.) Finally, the Core i9 in the MacBook Pro 16in can beat the M1 – but not all of the time.
Apple’s tendency is to charge eye-watering sums for RAM – doubling the 16GB in an Intel MacBook costs a wallet-thumping £400. M1 Mac RAM upgrades are even more terrifying: £200 for an extra 8GB of memory over the default.
But not all RAM is created equal. The M1’s unified architecture during testing suggests 8GB is sufficient – we had no issues working with video, multitrack Logic compositions and photo edits. We nonetheless suggest taking the hit and going for 16GB if you rarely replace your Macs, to give yourself longer-term headroom.
You can’t upgrade the internal storage of any MacBook, but you can attach external drives or utilise cloud storage, potentially taking advantage of macOS’s local storage optimisation smarts if you opt for iCloud Drive.
How much on-board storage to buy should be driven by the work you do. If you produce high-end video, audio and graphics, get more on-board storage; if you spend your days buried in Google Docs, Apple Music and Safari, save your cash and stick with lower storage tiers.
All MacBooks include Touch ID, to unlock your device and confirm payments with a finger. We hope Face ID will rock up soon, so you can gawp at your Mac to do those things instead.
Elsewhere, all MacBook Pro models have a Touch Bar – only the MacBook Air has standard function keys. The Touch Bar is divisive, but useful for surfacing shortcuts and scrubbing timelines. That said, it could be short-lived – rumours claim upcoming MacBook Pro refreshes will bin Apple’s touchscreen strip.
Apple quietly removed two Thunderbolt ports from the Mac mini’s M1 incarnation, which suggests the current set-up has clear I/O limits. This leaves M1 MacBooks with just two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports (albeit with full throughput), a headphone port, and the ability to drive only one 6K display.
Need more? Then go Intel, wait, or mess around with hubs and dongles. Note that rumours claim upcoming M1 MacBook redesigns will bring back more I/O, though, including an SD card slot. We’ll believe that when we see it, mind, given that if Apple got its way, it’d be happiest if its devices had no ports at all.